Seeing Dystopia and Dreaming Abolition at the US-Mexico Border

Since the installment of the children’s internment camps at Tornillo, Texas — a small community outside my hometown of El Paso — I’ve received a lot of queries concerning the history, struggles and general feelings among people living near the US-Mexico border. Although I would hesitate generalizing any 1,954-mile international boundary populated by millions of people and countless ecosystems, I think it is safe to say that one word aptly describes the US-Mexico border: dystopia.

I’m neither a literary scholar nor a science fiction aficionado, but I’ve watched Netflix enough to recognize a dystopia when I see one. Dystopias are usually imaginary societies where social order is imposed through a horrific combination of authoritarian policies and institutions. When I reflect on the border community I grew up with and the other border communities I’ve come to know, I can’t help but see an eerie vision of the world to come.

Every dystopia is different, and the one I grew up in at El Paso, Texas, certainly has its characteristic flavor. To understand it, you need to imagine a city where you cannot exit without passing an inspection station to have your nationality confirmed; where predator drones, heat sensors and repurposed technology from overseas wars patrol the deserts; where families are incarcerated because they lack a specific paper deeming them “legal”; where billion-dollar nonprofits enrich themselves from “sheltering” migrant children in detention jails; where those who cannot prove they are “legal” are moved to camps, military bases and repurposed department stores; where federal paramilitary groups freely enter your property and violate your civil rights looking for “illegals” and “terrorists”; where some people have giant steel walls for neighbors; where asylum seekers are denied entry at the mid-point of international bridges because all holding cells are “at capacity”; where do-gooders have to dodge federal paramilitary forces to get bottled water to families dying of thirst in deserts because their activities are “illegal.”

The trouble is that this is no science fiction — this is the face of the US-Mexico border, and it’s been this way since before I was born. The violence happening at the border is not an aberration or an exceptional far-right development. Violence has been inscribed into the US-Mexico border since its inception. The southern border is a classic US institution born of the US’s territorial conquest in the 1840s, hardened with the inscription of “illegality” on non-white persons during the onset of Chinese exclusion, and loyally enforced with the help of white-settler lynch mobs and a paramilitary force established in 1924 that continues to haunt our communities. If we fail to grasp the historical violence of the border, we will fail in any attempt at transforming it.

In recent weeks, for example, some have boldly asserted that electing Democrats to Congress will change this situation at the border. The historical record prevents me from taking this position seriously. Since the 1980s investment in border militarization has grown with bipartisan support, often shrouded in the language of “border security.” Today’s border is as much a product of Bush and Trump as it is of Clinton and Obama.

The border is therefore a bipartisan dystopia — one finely attuned to the rhythm of bourgeois democracy, where the newly elected denounce their predecessors while enshrining and strengthening their technologies of repression. It is my deep and unapologetic belief that we can no longer reform the border so as to make it more humane. The time has come to organize for the opening of the border and the abolition of all state apparatuses that detain, deport, intimidate, hunt and kill those attempting to migrate.

When I use the word “abolition,” I hope to invoke one of the most important emancipatory traditions on the continent: abolition democracy. Although the term was first introduced by W.E.B Du Bois in Black Reconstruction to describe the social revolution launched by Black Americans during the Civil War and Reconstruction, abolition democracy is rooted in centuries of transcontinental Black resistance to slavery and the structures of racial capitalism. Likewise, important Black feminist thinkers, such as Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Mariame Kaba have enriched and expanded the concept to call for the abolition of the prison-industrial complex. These thinkers have produced a canon of theory that has been intimately woven with direct action and has consistently encouraged collective organizing as the best means to “create the conditions for dismantling prisons, police, and surveillance.”

Today, border communities in resistance are already seeking an engaged conversation about abolition. Whereas 10 years ago, many organizers were calling for immigration reform, one can increasingly encounter local demands for the abolition of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Border Patrol, US Customs and Border Protection and the borderline itself. Often, these demands are hushed or pushed aside at rallies for more “manageable” goals, but such “manageable” strategies have not led to any comprehensive decrease in the militarization of border communities and the violence waged against migrants.

Fortunately, many organizations offering direct aid to detained migrants are already ahead of the curve. Migrant solidarity groups such as the Detained Migrant Solidarity Committee and the Queer Detainee Empowerment Project are actively implementing abolitionist praxis, seeking ways to support detained migrants while they work to abolish migrant detention itself. Aside from visitations and documentation, these groups have also established migrant bond funds, which pay exceedingly high bails (sometimes in the tens of thousands) so that migrants can leave ICE custody. In many ways, this is deeply similar to other abolitionist bond funds around the country, like the Chicago Community Bond Fund, which also mixes advocacy with a bond fund that has already freed hundreds of people from Cook County Jail.

The effort to build a robust border abolitionist movement is already being nourished by the solidarity expressed by other abolitionist organizers, among them Mariame Kaba, who have actively reached out to join us in struggle. In this new, intensified period of resistance, we are in a perfect position to begin a serious exchange between fronterizx (border-dwelling) emancipatory traditions and the abolitionism that has emerged from the Black Radical Tradition. It is my deepest hope that fronterizxs will likewise join our comrades in organizing for the end of the prison-industrial complex: an infrastructure that is deeply interwoven with the history of racial exclusion and migrant detention at the border. Yet, to do so adequately, we will also have to organize against the histories of anti-Blackness, anti-Indigenousness and homophobia that still persist in our communities.

In the days to come, those of us who embrace an abolitionist framework will certainly face dismissal, rejection and accusations of extremism. Yet abolitionists have always encountered these accusations and have always organized beyond them. We are brought to this work because we firmly believe the world we seek is one free from the dystopia of racial capitalism, garrison states and internment camps. And a world free from prisons, borders and the fascist pendejadas of la polimigra (i.e. the fascist nonsense of ICE, the police and the Border Patrol) is ultimately the one we all deserve.